The week of February 24-28, 2014 was an epic one for agency performance oversight hearings at the D.C. Council. Councilmember Grosso set out to attend every oversight hearing for the committees where he is a member—there were 12 hearings, addressing 29 government agencies. We covered all those hearings plus monitored a couple others! Like last week, what follows is a presentation of key moments from some of those hearings.
Quote of the week:
"There are two critical attributes for gaining employment with the Washington Aqueduct—have a fundamental understanding of the pH scale and understand why water is wet.” --Washington Aqueduct General Manager Thomas Jacobus. If that’s you, check out their job openings!
Councilmember Grosso and staff were kept busiest by the Committee on Education, with three days of hearings centered on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and D.C. Public Schools (DCPS). Two Washington Post articles helped set the agenda on the management of D.C. TAG (Tuition Assistance Grants, for D.C. students who go to state universities outside the District) and DCPS budget reprogramming of capital funds, published immediately prior to the respective hearings. You have to appreciate when the fourth estate also takes on an oversight role, right? Read on for some additional highlights from the hearings.
Office of the State Superintendent of Education
- High school students who volunteer with the Young Woman’s Project were back this year to testify on the need for D.C. to update its health and sexual education curriculum. “Sexuality is taught where straightness is the norm and anything else is an aberration,” one student testified. The Committee will include language in the FY15 Budget Support Act to ask OSSE to report on the status of health curriculum revisions by October 1.
- There was a spirited discussion about a little known change regarding student eligibility for free and reduced meals (FARM) that may have an impact on student achievement data. Last year, many D.C. schools moved to “community eligibility” for FARM meaning that if at least 40% of students at a school met the income eligibility requirements for FARM, then the entire school does. The tension arises when FARM data points are also used for student achievement. At schools like Hardy MS where just over 40% of students are FARM eligible, the other 60% of students are now being counted as such. Committee Chairman Catania suggested that this “community eligibility” distinction could distort our student achievement growth data.
- Speaking of student achievement growth, OSSE agreed to post online all of the school improvement plans that have been approved under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers. It takes a community to turn around a school, so why not let everyone know what we’re working towards. Be on the lookout for those on the OSSE website soon.
- There needs to be a complete overhaul of the teacher licensure system. Can you believe everything is still paper-based?! Only four people work in the OSSE licensure division and it takes about 8-10 weeks to get approved, which is entirely too long in our opinion.
D.C. Public Schools
- If you’re a parent looking at schools, you might want to compare DCPS and public charter schools side by side. Once upon a time, DCPS tried to create a common school rating system with the public charter school sector. Unfortunately, the two could not come to an agreement. So there are two systems, and no plans to try again for a unified metric. Which is a shame.
- We are just months away from the expiration of our federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant and DCPS still hasn’t implemented any turnaround plans under RTTT because they have not been able to receive approval from OSSE to spend the funds in time. Yes, let this knowledge marinate for a second. Millions of dollars are going unspent. But since OSSE committed to post the plans online soon, which implies they must be approved, this ball should finally be rolling.
- Just before the hearing, the Chancellor and the Mayor released the reprogramming of funding for modernization at schools which had some major “winners” and “losers.” The Chancellor sought to clarify some decisions. She first reported that Payne ES modernization dollars had been restored. Garrison ES was removed from Phase I modernization because the Mayor decided to do a full modernization for Garrison in FY15. The Chancellor also noted that there could be more changes to capital improvement plans to address some critical Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) violations at schools like Banneker HS, as pointed out by Councilmember Grosso. Going forward, all Phase I school modernizations will address ADA compliance issues.
- Councilmember Grosso asked Chancellor Henderson about the continuity of leaders and whether the one-year contracts for school administrators is helping or hindering DCPS keep its effective leaders. The Chancellor reported that she is conversations with the CSO (school leader union) about 3-year contracts for school leaders. A BIG move if they can get it to work.
- Not everyone likes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new healthy nutrition standards for school lunch. Participation rates across DCPS are down because the food isn’t as flavorful. Councilmember Grosso noted that they should consider food trucks—turns out that’s what some of the students have been asking for.
We are certainly looking forward to the Mayor’s FY15 budget to see how DCPS better equalizes the rigor and programming across its middle schools and education campuses. The big money question: is it OK for some more advanced courses like Algebra I to have 3 or 4 students in a classroom, or should those courses be cut?
Oversight hearings by the Committee of the Whole covered eight different agencies! However, the Office of Contracts and Procurement had just recently had a hearing, and several other agencies are multi-jurisdictional, so the bulk of energy was put into oversight of the University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and the UDC Community College. The oversight hearing—covering UDC, the community college, and the law school—was a marathon, clocking in at over six hours.
- One hurdle that Councilmember Grosso discussed with UDC President Lyons was how the institution can overcome the barriers that it faces for Middle States Accreditation. To that end, UDC recognizes that it must take action to implement its Vision 20/20 Plan, so that it can operate less as a government agency and more like an independent higher education institution.
- There was the robust discussion about dual eligibility and how the college plans to engage with DCPS and public charter schools to get our resident students into early college prep courses to earn both high school and college credits.
- Another hot topic was retention and graduation rates--UDC currently retains and graduates only about 16% of the students that enroll at the school. We do not know the percentages of students who transfer out to other institutions or leave higher education altogether. The University is beginning to track these students better as well as develop plans for retaining more students.
Although there is a lot of work to be done, the focus and the energy are clearly shifting at UDC from a survival mode mentality to one that is more about thriving and future growth.
D.C. Office on Aging
- As part of their FY13 performance goals, D.C. Office on Aging planned to reach 55% of District employees seeking employment through job training and placement but only reached 26.5%. this was due in part to that the tight current job market, where seniors are competing with recent college graduates and grad school alum for the same positions. Another Office initiative was a collaboration with Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to educate seniors about financial abuse and fraud. In response to a question from Councilmember Grosso, the Office on Aging said they are actively addressing issues affecting LGBT seniors and have members of their senior advisory board from the LGBT community.
Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services
- Councilmember Grosso asked the Deputy Mayor of Health and Human Services about the little-known fact that the Gray administration changed emergency shelters from being open year-round to only during hypothermia season. This might be part of why D.C. General had such a crunch this winter, among other factors. David also made it clear that he believes D.C. should be helping anyone who is homeless in the city, rather than focusing efforts on additional measures to verify District residency for those seeking shelter.
Department of Environment
- Public witnesses testifying about Department of Environment (DDOE) echoed Councilmember Grosso’s desire to swim in the Anacostia, alleging that the swimming ban should be removed in certain parts of the river where kayaking and other water activities already take place. Director Anderson was not convinced, but said they would look into the subject, while erring on the side of safety. Additionally:
- DDOE has finalized storm water regulations—related in part to the green river infrastructure discussed by DC Water (see below), who they are collaborating with on continued clean-up of the Anacostia.
- DDOE planted over 8,000 trees in the District in FY13, exceeding original targets by almost 100%.
- Under a contract with DDOE, DC Sustainable Energy Utility (DCSEU) is tasked with promoting energy efficiency, but has been failing to meet its benchmarks. DDOE is reviewing the contract and considering changes to be made.
Director Anderson stated that priorities for the coming year include implementing the Mayor’s Sustainable D.C. plan, the health of the Anacostia River, and working to resolve issues with the DCSEU.
DC Water & Washington Aqueduct
- With two-thirds of District sewer overflows dumping into the Anacostia and Potomac, DC Water is working to accelerate its green infrastructure initiative. DC Water and Department of Transportation are exploring which is agency is best suited to implement this initiative, known as the Clean Rivers Project. Remaining challenges notwithstanding, public witness Marchant Wentworth remembered when “condoms were gently flowing out of combined sewer tunnels.” We’ve come a long way.
- According to General Manager Thomas Jacobus of the oft-forgotten Washington Aqueduct, the District’s water quality is just as good if not better than any other local jurisdiction. All water analysis testing will be completed by the end of the month.
Department of Motor Vehicles
- Big news for the Department of Motor Vehicles when April turns to May--the Georgetown Service Center is scheduled to reopen on April 29, while new driver’s licenses under the D.C. Driver’s Safety Amendment Act will launch May 1, 2014. Don’t plan to get your new license on May Day, however, as due to the large number of residents expected to apply, they will be available by appointment only.
- In other facilities news, DMV Director Lucinda Babers said that Brentwood Road Test Center “sucks,” and she is working with Department of General Services to identify another location for road testing.
- Tips for the “wrongly” ticketed: If ever you should receive a parking ticket that you wish to contest, DMV wants you to know that you should NOT pay the ticket first. Paying the ticket is basically an admission of guilt. To resolve the matter, contest the ticket. If you lose and seek to appeal, you must then pay the ticket along with the appeal fee. If you win on appeal, you will be refunded.
Department of Public Works
- Bet you didn’t see this coming--due to the heavy snowfall this winter, Department of Public Works has busted their snow budget, going $2 million over their $6.2 million budget. DPW is working with the Budget Office to reallocate additional funds. But even $8 million isn’t enough to get every D.C. street clear of snow after heavy storms, which DPW is trying to address by improving communications among plow drivers and zone captains. Will Spring ever come?
- When residents aren’t complaining about snow, they’re griping about parking, and DPW indicated that parking enforcers are beginning to take more photos to reduce “keying errors.” Yes, photos! DPW stated that if a parking officer has a high ticket challenge rate they are likely writing bad tickets and the Director will address it.
Over 90 people showed up to testify before the Committee on Business and Consumer Regulatory Affairs oversight hearing regarding four major agencies—Department of Employment Services, Department of Small and Local Business Development, Workforce Investment Council and the Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. Here are some key moments:
- The majority of attendees spoke about the need for the Chairman and the Council to secure the necessary funding in the budget to fulfill the promise of the new minimum wage and paid sick and safe leave laws.
- Councilmember Grosso used his allotted time to question the Department of Employment Services (DOES) Interim Director, Tom Luparello. His primary focus was to ascertain the metrics used by the Department to measure the performance of their employees and the programs and services that they provide. Historically, the Office of Program and Performance Monitoring has been understaffed with an underspent budget—we think that is a serious problem for the office that oversees the implementation of policies, procedures, and metrics. Director Luparello stated that they are working on getting this office properly staffed. He also mentioned that he reviews reports of employees and programs on a daily basis. It is his goal to review every program and office at DOES to determine and rate performance levels.
- One positive crossover from the Committee of the Whole oversight hearing for the UDC Community College and DOES is that apparently both groups are working together to find better avenues for improving workforce development needs and funding.
The Finance and Revenue Committee heard from the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) about its latest efforts to prevent and identify fraud. OCFO established the Office of Integrity Oversight to monitor internal controls along with a new Chief Risk Officer.Additionally, OCFO has tightened hiring standards for the Office and is committed to changing company culture to foster a positive work environment because changing attitudes is the first step to decreasing fraud and company waste.
Although Councilmember Grosso is not a member of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, we try to keep up with the happenings there due to our commitment to improving the criminal justice system in the District. The oversight hearing on coordination of emergency responses by the Office of Unified Communications (OUC), the Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department (FEMS), and the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) brought out a number of interesting points regarding recent high profile agency failures.
Fire and Emergency Medical Services
- FEMS protocol is that every patient must be assessed. In a tragic case where a man died after an ambulance responding to the call said they were “waved off by MPD,” this policy clearly states that they should have responded regardless of MPD actions. Nonetheless, as noted by one union leader, a protocol shouldn’t replace the basic instinct of compassion that is vital to working in the public safety field.
- The conversation kept returning to issues of dispatch, and how dispatch decisions are made. There was not clarity on whether FEMS has a policy prohibiting self-dispatching (such as an ambulance stopping to help someone who hails them when not already on a call), although under the previous fire chief one employee was allegedly fired for self-dispatching. A former oversight officer for FEMS testified, seeking whistleblower protection, about a number of failures at the agency, including a faulty dispatch priority decision making system. He described witnessing a police officer hit by a car across the street from his station, but then being dispatched to reset a fire alarm in a nearby building while a team from another neighborhood was sent to help the officer. He also outlined other problems from credentialing to medication supplies to lack of oversight within the agency.
Metropolitan Police Department
We looked forward to the oversight hearing for the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) after the recent release of the Hate Crimes Assessment Task Force report as well as the conversations in the city about racial disparities in arrests and marijuana law reform. A few advocates made important testimony and Chief Lanier answered several rounds of questions from Committee Chairman Wells.
- An ACLU investigation of police complaint processes found that only four in ten police stations kept complaint forms for the Office of Police Complaints, while their inquiries about how to file a complaint against an officer frequently elicited hostile and factually inaccurate responses from officers. This testimony contrasted starkly with Chief Lanier’s later testimony that the best way to improve police interactions with transgender residents is for people to make complaints. Indeed, she testified that the best way to address officer misconduct across the board is by filing reports.
- Conflicts between bicyclists and car drivers, and associated safety concerns, continue to be an issue for advocates like Washington Area Bicycle Association. While WABA and others suggested that increased enforcement of bicycle laws might help but also emphasized that bicyclists are not the only ones that flout the laws, and encouraged any increase in enforcement to be applied fairly across transportation modes. Chief Lanier rejected suggestions that MPD officers might treat bicyclists less favorably than motorists.
- On the topic of the Hate Crimes Assessment Task Force report, Chief Lanier recognized that the transition of the Gay and Lesbian Liaison Unit (GLLU) was not done well. While she agreed that it was rushed and therefore not properly executed, she stood by her decision to decentralize the unit. Chief Lanier also acknowledged that MPD needs stronger training for affiliate members of the GLLU. Although the report documented a steady increase in hate crimes, including against LGBT community, from 2008 to 2011, Chief Lanier testified that hate crimes have gone down in the previous two year. There is still no consensus on whether this reflects actual crime patterns, reporting patterns, or an unclear mix of the two.
- In response to questions from Committee Chairman Wells about racial disparities in marijuana arrests, Chief Lanier said that racial disparities are nothing new in drug arrests. She further stated that the report from the Washington Committee of Lawyers for Civil Rights on race and marijuana arrests used bad data—data that came from MPD. According to Chief Lanier, 911 calls are what lead to drug arrests. In 2013, MPD received 12 calls regarding marijuana use in Ward 3 versus 500+ in Ward 7, partially explaining racial disparities according to the Chief.